Does Boutique Mean Better?

This headline caught my eye as I was walking into Heron’s Flight Vineyard in Matakana a couple of months ago and it really got me thinking.  The article was laminated and stuck on the wall as you entered the cellar door area and essentially it explored whether the product, service and overall experience of a winery and its wines was better from the boutique wineries, like Heron’s Flight, or from the bigger brands (such as your Jacobs Creeks or Villa Marias).

I did linger on the question with regards wineries but unfortunately I am nowhere near enough of a wine buff to be in any position to consider that for too long.  Generally since the GFC and becoming a Dad (twice in quick succession) my decision-making on the wine front is driven by the strength of Foodtown’s wine sale.

No, of course my mind wandered to the phrase “boutique” and its rather over-frequent use in the recruitment industry.  I decided I would do a little research into what you, the recruitment community, thought about this question as it relates to recruitment firms.  In certain sectors the phrase “boutique” seems to conjure up an image of quality, personalized service, exclusivity – accessible by people “in-the-know” with the resources to access it.  Think of clothes shops – Trelise Cooper versus Glassons – or hotels – De Brett’s versus Crowne Plaza.  You see how your mind conjures a certain feeling or image associated with the boutique brands?  There is nothing wrong with the bigger global or multinational brands, but the cache of cool just isn’t there, the desire to consume from something unique and more special and independent.

So how about boutique recruitment companies?  Does boutique mean better?  Or more precisely, does boutique recruitment firm mean better?

For the record I am writing this with regard to the New Zealand recruitment industry, where a boutique firm typically means one that is owned by New Zealand-based Directors with maybe between one and three offices and perhaps between 2 and 40 staff.  A “Global” or “Multinational” would typically describe a firm with a head office, board and shareholders outside New Zealand with a presence in a number of countries.

I decided to look at this from a few different points of view, to give the answer some balance.  So I have considered the viewpoints of recruiters who started out in large global recruitment firms, either in the New Zealand operations or overseas, who have since moved into a boutique firm.  I have also spoken to those that have gone the other way, from boutique firms into global firms with a New Zealand presence.  And I have also wondered how the clients of agencies might answer this question – the New Zealand business community that uses recruitment agencies to source talent – who do they think is better?

There are some distinct differences between Boutiques and Globals that showed up in many of the responses and there are clear Pros and Cons for each:

Boutique Pros

 

  • Flexibility and Autonomy

 “Flexible and adaptable approach, e.g. more leeway to negotiate on fees rather than dictated by policy and b***s*** from above” 

“Also get a little more freedom at a boutique in terms of how you plan your day, who you target and meet etc.”

“The ability to change processes and adapt to the the changes in the market with one phone call or email. With a global agency you are generally confined within the standard procedure.”

“More entrepreneurial and latitude to set your day how you like, treat you like an adult” 

“Working for a boutique also offered flexibility over hours for a better work/life balance.” 

“Benefits – autonomy, autonomy, autonomy!  Simple as that.”

  

  • A greater sense of worth within the organization

“The level of exposure of the business at an operational level. Boutiques are great for learning the behind the scenes stuff and for a broader recruitment experience.”

“Feeling more important to the company and not just a cog in the wheel. Being a more valuable asset.”

“I also saw working in a boutique as an opportunity to have greater participation in decision-making and defining the future growth and direction of the business.”

  • More incentives and perks, both financial and non-financial

“We also celebrate success more with lunches and other events which is a nice perk!” 

“More empowering and reward you better financially for your work” 

 

  • Closer focus on service levels rather than purely revenue-driven 

“More client driven and higher service standards” 

“Also the opportunity to push the service piece which is realistically impossible in the big corporate recruitment world.” 

“I am also trusted to work very senior roles, and I am given a generous budget to take my clients and candidates out and to attend networking events.” 

 

 

Boutique Cons

 

  • Less stability 

“Having worked for owner operated firms/boutiques, I wanted to work with a larger team, with a wider range of resources behind me, and to reduce the individual feeling of responsibility for the bottom line.” 

“Although recruitment is performance-based – whether judged purely by fees billed – or a combination of KPI’s and fees – global recruitment firms do offer more stability.” 

 

  • Less resources

“I believe there are some excellent boutique agencies out there but I found that working for a boutique was like working for an under-resourced global recruitment firm.”

 

  • Fewer career opportunities 

“I felt a global agency offered me opportunities a boutique agency couldn’t or didn’t.”

 

 

Global or Multinational Pros

 

  • Better training and resources 

“Excellent training and ongoing support” 

“Lots more experience to draw on, more people to bounce ideas off and leverage relationships off, huge resources – marketing, processes, etc” 

“Gain more in depth training, on-going professional development” 

“Also the training was second to none and immeasurably beneficial for me when I was brand new to the recruitment industry.” 

“These companies will train you and support you and mould you in to a lean and efficient recruiter.”

 

  • Better career prospects 

“If travelling abroad seeking employment it’s often easier to gain employment through working at a global brand” 

“Global firms have the structure to offer career progression and if consultants perform well they will tend to progress quickly.”

 

  • Better branding helping to open doors, especially with larger organizations 

“Often easier to access larger clients as larger clients like to affiliate themselves with global structures similar to themselves” 

“Better brand and marketing power and budgets. More people know your name which should mean less selling once established.” 

“Working for a global brand often opens more doors as it is (for better or worse!) generally well-recognised across the market.”

 

  • Greater access to candidates with a wider reach 

“More candidates to share and if set up properly there can be communication within different countries of strong candidates moving abroad.” 

“Due to larger operations and marketing consultants generally have access to more candidates – particularly those relocating from overseas”

 

  • More structure around KPIs and targets 

“Although KPI’s are often seen as a thorn in the side for recruitment consultants they are in place for a reason and having some accountability makes sure you can’t rest on your laurels – which makes performing and billing to your best more achievable.” 

“The only thing I miss, and this might sound weird to most recruiters, is the pressure on activity levels from management. When that pressure isn’t there I have a tendency to get in to bad habits, to avoid making the difficult calls, for example.” 

 

Global or Multinational Cons

 

  • Lower pay, particularly commission levels 

“Money – low base and poor commission structure” 

“At the global company I was getting a very low cut of the fees I was bringing in, and I knew there was more money to be made in this industry.”

  

  • Micro-Management 

“Micro management, inflexiblity around how you manage your day, too rigid” 

“I had become frustrated with stringent KPI’s and the inability to work creatively in the recruitment process.” 

“There is a bigger, more unrealistic expectation on performance being in a larger organisation.”

 

  • The pursuit of revenue and profit over long term client or candidate relationships 

“An air of arrogance and insensitivity with clients and candidates individual circumstances, not really into preserving long term relationships but rather about the sale now and then”

 

  • Transactional recruitment practices 

“Approach is flick and stick, rather than consultative” 

“There were strict protocols and a ‘one size fits all’ approach to recruitment and this made it difficult to provide a personalised approach that would best fit the clients’ requirements.” 

 

So there you have it – straight from the horse’s mouth – the horse being a range of different recruiters who have experienced both Global and Boutique recruitment environments and were kind enough to offer their opinions.

I also asked this group which environment would best suit a consultant brand new to the recruitment industry and a resounding 87% recommended starting your recruitment career in a Global firm.  The main reasons given were around the more robust and structured training offered in the Globals, with one contributor putting it quite nicely: 

“The big multi-national.  Why?  Boutiques are clueless at training people and I can nearly always tell recruiters who had the basics beaten into them – makes them more rounded and better able to play the corporate game.”

(For the record this came from someone currently in a “boutique”!)

For those of you interested in what clients of the recruitment industry have to say about this question, whether they think “Boutique Means Better”, they had this to say:

“From our perspective we feel that there is a place for both.  The reason, they both bring different strengths to the table.  The larger agencies have a great reach and spread in terms of the market and with larger organisation such as our which have a national and international focus, the ability to tap into that wider market is key to us being able to attract individuals to our organisation. 

The boutique agencies have the benefit of being specialised in their particular for the market, so where you are looking for a specific industry or skill set they have the advantage over the larger agencies.  This is where there knowledge really comes into play in terms of networks and channels to tap into.

We have a mixture of both on our panel and they equally perform well in their given spaces.”

 

“I don’t have a particular preference over global or boutique as I think a lot of it comes down to the relationship you establish with your key contact in the agency and their ability to provide you with quality candidates as opposed to continuously firing any CV at you.”

 

“There are positivites for both Global and Botique agencies.  From a Global perspective it would be the strength of their brand in the marketplace and their ability to attract talent because of the brand, this includes attracting talent returning to NZ. 

The other strength in Global is that they’re often able to provide a service across a wider range of roles e.g. Finance, Operations, HR etc as opposed to Boutique which usually focus on one area of the market.  The strength in this is that these agencies generally get greater exposure to the business because they’re given more roles to recruit for and therefore they have a better understanding of cultural fit for the business. 

In my experience Boutique agencies generally have a better pool of passive job seekers than Global Agencies, they maintain relationships with candidates which can go on for years and this will ultimately benefit clients.  They seem much more relationship focused and with both candidates and clients and are usually more aware of the importance of cultural fit to a candidate’s success in an organisation.  From a candidate perspective I think they provide a far more personalised service and are genuinely interested in finding the right role for the candidate.  To me the strength in this is that candidates will refer other passive job seekers and the agency ends up with a larger pool of quality candidates for their clients.”

 

These clients come from large commercial businesses in the Construction & Engineering, FMCG and Financial Services sectors.  I appreciate your comments.

So where does that lead me in summary?  Clearly there are arguments either way and I would say probably not enough to definitively argue that Boutique Does Mean Better.  As is often the case, you have to judge it on a case by case basis, and be honest with yourself about what you are really looking for in your next, or current, role.

Hopefully the generous contributions above will provide some insight and guidance and I will welcome the thoughts of anyone else out there in the recruitment world.

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4 responses to “Does Boutique Mean Better?

  1. Nice post Jonathan… of course the real answer is “It Depends” but having spent time in the executive teams of both entities I choose boutique. From a leadership perspective I believe the key difference in the two business models is the primary strategic imperative.
    In the Multi-National PLC is must be all about return to shareholders. This means that top-line revenue growth typically dominates all board and management discussions. This in turn means VOLUME and everything associated with a volume mandate! (which also serves the large clients that have high volume requirements on cheaper terms well.)
    In the Boutique the key driver is mostly people and culture because without a focus on people and culture they simply could not compete. The final outcome of that is of course profitability but along the way it allows for innovation, freedom, improved reward structures and a more relationship driven ethos as referred to in the comments you received.
    I rate the multi-nationals strongly for the many things that they bring to our industry but if asked for a black and white answer… I say, on balance, boutique (of course :-)!

  2. Nice work, yet again, Jonathan. An excellent contribution to this topic that always generates an opinion from anyone you ask. I think ’boutique’ is one of the most overused and cliched words in recruitment but it’s used so much because it sounds better than ‘small’. I’ve worked at both and gained benefits from both. It really depends upon your experience and values.

    I was told by a rec-to-rec, at the ripe old age of 36, that I was ‘too old’, for at a role at a multi-national that I was perfectly suited to. At that stage I knew that I needed to become self-employed and not rely on either a boutique or a multi-national for my ongoing employment in the recruitment industry.

  3. Good work on surveying your contacts Jonathan. You’ve gained a great insight into this subject.

    I think there is room for some ‘boutiques’ to create a strong training and development program and couple that with all of the positives people have mentioned that typically come with a boutique (autonomy, creativity, influence on the business etc…). Companies that do this well, position themselves in the recruitment ‘employer’ market as a place to go to ‘further’ develop the skill-sets that have been gained at larger companies to learn the finer points of ‘consulting’. Many recruiters have not been given the opportunity to entrench themselves in their client’s recruitment and on-boarding process to become truly client focused. The structures they work within mean their clients see them a source for CV’s rather than a trusted partner; an advisor and enabler; part of their business; implementing structures and tools that improve their entire recruitment process. I see many consultants that have stopped learning at the larger recruiters. They need to go on a new path of professional development in order to create a newly found purpose in their careers, whilst gaining the autonomy and creativity they now crave and deserve as a proven recruiter. I believe Consultants that come in contact with such a company are the ones who rise to the top of the industry, having learned the basics and then further developed their skills to become a highly respected entity within the industry.

    Career development was mentioned as a con to ‘boutiques’ which is obviously valid. I think the exceptions are the recruitment businesses that provide the above path for their staff. They will inevitably grow and therefore be opening up new locations and verticals to operate within, thus providing career opportunities for their top performers.

    So in my view it’s ‘Boutique’. But conditional on the company’s ability to deliver something similar to what I’ve outlined above. Otherwise as a recruiter, you’ll enjoy the autonomy, but will soon lose motivation as your learning comes to halt; potentially moving from company to company every two or so years in search for a new challenge before leaving the industry all together.

    But that’s I biased view from a Director of a specialist recruitment business.

  4. If you want to tap into a candidate pool that someone has built up over time and who is committed to the industry – boutique every time. No one stays in the multi nationals long at all, but the boutique operations have the longevity of staff, which in turn gives clients access to the candidate relationships built over time.

    Look at the market now, all the good recruiters are in the boutique space, and the multi nationals are floundering big time as no one wants to work with them for pretty well half of what a boutique will pay them.

    The we have multi nationals poaching whole recruitment teams from each other and just paying crazy salaries to attract them across – but the teams are mediocre at best!!

    Unfortunately the multi nationals are great at paying people until they get to a productive stage and they then work for boutique operations…

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